A demonstrator holds a sign at the 'All out for Gaza' protest at Columbia University in New York City on November 15, 2023. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP)
'All out for Gaza' protest at Columbia University in New York City on November 15, 2023. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP)
Inside Story'It's a war of antisemitism and PR, and Columbia is ground zero'

Amid Israel-Hamas war, students say antisemitism is ‘new normal’ at Columbia University

Jewish and Israeli students fear for their safety in a campus climate that’s dismissive of their well-being while allowing rampant, bitter anti-Israel rhetoric to cross red lines

Reporter at The Times of Israel

'All out for Gaza' protest at Columbia University in New York City on November 15, 2023. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP)

NEW YORK — A stack of fliers caught Melissa Saidak’s eye when she walked into the lobby of the Columbia University School of Social Work in late November.

Advertising a “teach-in,” the fliers depicted three missiles targeting a Palestinian flag dripping in blood. One missile was emblazoned with the Columbia University logo, one with the American flag, and the third with the Israeli flag. Two weeks earlier, more than 50 students, some banging drums, some chanting into a megaphone, had staged a nine-hour sit-in in the school’s lobby. It was one of many such protests on campus.

“They were saying things like ‘Zionists get out,’ and ‘Israel go to hell.’ Most of the world is not safe for Jewish people and the facts are, Israel is important for a lot of reasons; namely, it’s a safe haven,” said Saidak, who describes herself as a non-Zionist secular Jew.

Nearly eight weeks before, on October 7, thousands of Hamas-led terrorists had stormed across Israel’s border, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 240 more into the Gaza Strip. The brutality of the massacre — in what President Joe Biden called the “deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust” — gained global attention: the rampaging gunmen slaughtered entire families, many of them burned alive in their homes, and raped, tortured, dismembered and mutilated their victims, who included women, children and the elderly.

Israel has since vowed to dismantle the Hamas terror regime, which governs the Gaza Strip, and to secure the return of the hostages.

The conflict has brought raging protests against Israel in the Middle East, Europe and the United States from its earliest days, even as Israelis were struggling to secure their towns and treat the thousands of wounded prior to the country’s military response.

Melissa Saidak, a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Social Work. (Cathryn J. Prince/ToI)

Now, like on many campuses across the US, antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment continues to intensify at Columbia University as the Israel-Hamas war progresses into its ninth week.

A flier for the November 29 Teach-In at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. (Courtesy: Amy Werman)

Social media posts mock the October 7 Hamas massacre or hail it as justified; masked protesters chant phrases that are antisemitic dog whistles such as “Globalize the Intifada”; and teach-ins, which don’t include Jewish speakers, preach about “settler colonialism.” More than a dozen Jewish and Israeli students at Columbia who spoke to The Times of Israel for this article said that confronting antisemitism is now part and parcel of daily campus life.

“I always felt comfortable and safe here. Then October 7 happened and a war broke out in Israel — and a second war broke out here in the US. It’s a war of antisemitism and public opinion, and Columbia is ground zero,” said Andrew, a graduate student at the school of architecture who requested that neither his last name nor photo be used out of concern for his safety.

A planned December 6 ‘teach-in’ at Columbia University School of Social Work. (via X)

While Columbia announced the formation of an antisemitism task force on November 1 to “enhance our ability to address this ancient, but terribly resilient, form of hatred,” a newly released Anti-Defamation League (ADL) national survey of American college students found that before the Israel-Hamas war, 67 percent of Jewish students said they felt physically safe on campus, and 66% felt emotionally safe. Following the massacre, only 46% felt physically safe and 33% felt emotionally safe.

“Jewish students are experiencing a wave of antisemitism unlike anything we’ve seen before, but shockingly, non-Jewish students barely see it,” said ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt.

At Columbia, where 22.3% of undergraduate students are Jewish, the incidents started soon after students held their first candlelight vigil to honor those killed and those kidnapped.

Screenshots of social media posts shared with The Times of Israel show that the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Columbia Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) described the Hamas atrocities as “an unprecedented historic moment for the Palestinians of Gaza, who tore through the wall that has been suffocating them… Despite the odds against them, Palestinians launched a counter-offensive against their settler-colonial oppressor.” Neither SJP nor JVP responded to requests to comment.

Screenshots of antisemitic comments made on Sidechat, an anonymous chat group for Columbia students. (Courtesy)

On October 11, a Jewish Israeli student was assaulted in an incident the Manhattan District Attorney is investigating as a possible hate crime. And on October 27, a swastika was found drawn inside a men’s bathroom at the School of International and Public Affairs.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstrations quickly ramped up, leading University Public Safety to close the campus on more than one occasion. In the two weeks leading up to the Thanksgiving break, there were protests nearly every day.

While SJP and JVP organized the initial protests, both organizations were suspended for the remainder of the semester for violating university policy. However, the suspension didn’t end the protests. The only difference is they are no longer officially organized by SJP or JVP.

People gather to protest the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) at Columbia University on November 20, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Fliers advertising a November 30 event titled “Injustice Anywhere: A teach-in on Palestine and the Black Radical Tradition,” listed both SJP and JVP next to the Black Students Organization as event sponsors. According to the university, it was a departmental event and the faculty hosting the event were asked to tell students not to incorrectly advertise it.

Keffiyehs are all the rage

Earlier last week students, many of whom wore keffiyehs, staged a six-hour sit-in in the lobby of the School of International and Public Affairs demanding, among other things, that the university divest from Israel.

It has become increasingly common to see Columbia students of all ethnicities and races wearing keffiyehs — a traditional black-and-white Palestinian scarf. And while some might consider that cultural appropriation, SJP, which had been selling keffiyehs, said they are “a subtle way to make a statement and show solidarity,” according to campus newspaper the Columbia Spectator.

“It’s become very clear that these rallies are being used to cover Jew hatred,” said Joshua Shain, a sophomore who is on the board of Students Supporting Israel, an international Zionist student activist movement.

Demonstrators rally at the ‘All out for Gaza’ protest at Columbia University in New York City on November 15, 2023. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP)

That’s certainly been the case for Ariana Pinsker-Lehrer, an Israeli graduate student at the School of Social Work.

“I know college campuses are very pro-Palestinian, but when October 7 happened, it was so gruesome and well-documented that I felt like there would be some compassion. However, it’s been very toxic and very painful,” said Pinsker-Lehrer. “It’s going to class and hearing ‘Intifada.’ For me that is my childhood trauma. It’s privileged to support a call for violence when you will not pay the price for that violence. Not the Israeli price or the Palestinian price.”

‘The rhetoric is what scares the shit out of me’

The invective, both on social media and during protests, is taking a toll — not only on students, but also on professors.

Amy Werman, a full-time professor at the Columbia School of Social Work, said she’s not bothered by the protests per se; it’s the rhetoric that she finds alarming. In fact, she walked through the November 9 sit-in because she wanted to bear witness and because she “believe[s] in conversation.”

Prof. Amy Werman of the Columbia University School of Social Work. (Cathryn J. Prince)

“The rhetoric is what scares the shit out of me. It’s so harsh and caustic. Who says dismembering, raping, and decapitating is a form of resistance? That’s a level of barbarism I could never imagine. I feel so deflated,” said Werman.

Noah Miller, a graduate student in the school of architecture, recounted how a fellow student, who wanted to read him a quote from “Mein Kampf,” also told him “Zionism scares me.”

But lately, he said he feels more angry than unsafe. “Sometimes there are three protests in a week. I can’t focus, I can hear all of this chanting while I’m inside the studio trying to work,” he said.

Miller’s thoughts echo a recent Hillel International survey, which found that 84% of Jewish students say the situation in Israel and Gaza is affecting them in some way.

Students interviewed for this story also described being spurned by friends and clubs outside the Jewish community.

Pro-Israel demonstrators react while singing a song during a protest at Columbia University days after Hamas terrorists massacred 1,200 and kidnapped 200-250 more in southern Israel, October 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

Shortly after the October 7 terror attack, Gabriella Frants, a senior, posted a blue and white heart on Instagram.

“I was unfollowed by so many people over something I just thought was a human thing to do because so many civilians died. The thing I find most shocking is the amount of dismissing of Jewish voices and narratives. We are just brushed off or met with such disregard,” she said.

Gabriella Frants, a senior at Barnard College at Columbia University. (Cathryn J. Prince)

In mid-October, the president and founder of LionLez, a club for queer women and nonbinary people run by students of color, put out a promotional flier with a note: “It’s FREE PALESTINE over here. Zionists aren’t invited,” according to the Columbia Spectator.

Shain said he saw that incident as the “canary in the coal mine. It was so overt, and then other random clubs which have nothing to do with Israel pressure students.”

Investigating ‘alleged’ antisemitic harassment

Meanwhile, on November 20 the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights announced that Columbia is one of seven schools being investigated for alleged antisemitic harassment. An investigation means the Education Department has identified a credible allegation that civil rights law has been violated.

Demonstrators rally at the ‘All out for Gaza’ protest at Columbia University in New York City on November 15, 2023. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP)

“We have received the notification letter from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and will cooperate with any investigation,” said Columbia spokesperson Samantha Slater.

Under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, colleges and universities receiving federal money must protect students from discrimination based on race, color or national origin. This includes Jews, Muslims and other ethnic or religious groups with “shared ancestry.”

If a civil rights violation is found, the university could lose federal funding. But for that to happen, it has to be proved that victims were denied equal access to education and the university acted with deliberate indifference toward those students. It’s not enough to show that the campus environment was hostile. Most often, even if a civil rights violation is found, a settlement will be reached between the school and the DOE.

Barnard senior Frants said she hopes the investigation brings a measure of relief to all students.

“I can only hope it will legitimize some of the real concerns of students on campus, including those who are facing antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred,” Frants said.

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